Why does Thoreau think that the government was foolish in imprisoning him for not paying poll-tax?


What is Thoreau’s attitude towards a State’s imprisoning a man?


What does Thoreau think about the imprisonment of a man by the State?


josbd (3)Answer: Thoreau has a very revolutionary idea about the imprisonment of a man by his state. The author himself was imprisoned once for not paying poll-tax for six years. He thinks that the state was foolish in imprisoning him. The author did not feel confined for a moment. But paradoxically he felt much freer, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. The imprisonment gave him an interesting experience and many realizations. He wonders that the state should have concluded at last that this was the best use it could put him to, and had never thought to avail itself of his services in some way.

The author was once imprisoned for not paying poll-tax to the government. He spent one night in the prison and had an interesting experience there. When he entered the prison, -he saw the prisoners in their shirtsleeves enjoying a chat and the evening air in the doorway. The writer occupied one window, and read the tracts that were left there. He learnt all about the present and previous prisoners. He realized that even there was a gossip and a history which never circulated beyond the walls. Some young prisoners composed some verses though they were never published outside. The night he spent there seemed to be a long journey to a distant country. He heard the town clock and the evening sounds of the village. He had a very close view of the native town even from the prison cell. Then he got out of prison, he felt some change had come over the scene—change in the town, the state and the country. He saw the state more distinctly, how far the friends and neighbors could be trusted. He realized that the friendship was for summer weather only.

The author thought the imprisonment had come due to his revolution against the state. He accepted this imprisonment positively. He did not have any fear for being imprisoned. The author did not pay the poll-tax, for he thought that it would be a violent measure to pay them, as paying it would enable the state to commit violence and shed innocent blood. The author was not like those people who paid their tax to prevent their going to jail.


“If others pay the tax which is demanded of me, from sympathy with the State they do but what they have already done in their own case, or rather they abet injustice to a greater extent than the State requires. If they pay the tax from a mistaken interest in the individual taxed, to save his property, or prevent his going to jail, it is because they have not considered wisely how far they let their private feelings interfere with the public good.”

Unlike the ordinary people, the author made a peaceful revolution against the State by not paying the poll-tax. He did not bother to prevent imprisonment for he knew that it would not affect his spirit. The author expressed his view that the state was foolish in imprisoning him, because the state seemed to have thought that he was mere flesh and blood, without any spirit.

He could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on his meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance and they were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach him, they had resolved to punish his body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have spite, will abuse his dog. He saw the state was half-witted, that it was timed as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes and he lost all his remaining respect for it, and pitied it.

The state is, according to the author, merely armed with superior physical strength, not with superior wit or honesty. It confronts only a man’s body, and never intentionally confronts a man’s sense. The author was imprisoned; he was free, for he was never born to be forced. Actually, the state could not reach his spirit and so they decided to punish his body.


Thus the author thinks the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. He was not born to be forced. He would breathe after his own fashion. Who is the strongest? What force has a multitude? They only can force one to obey a law. They can force one to become like themselves. According to the author, nobody should force him to lead a particular sort of life, not even his state. The government that says to him, “your money or your life,” does not deserve to be paid any money by him. The author thinks that he is not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of the society. He perceives that when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws. They spring and grow and flourish as best they can till one, perchance, overshadows the other. If a plant cannot live according to its own nature, it dies. So is the case with a man.

Thoreau’s attitude to imprisonment is clear. He thinks that a man is a free being and putting him into prison does not curtail his freedom, rather it increases his freedom. So the purpose of the state of curbing a man’s freedom by imprisoning him will be foiled; it will be absolutely foolish on the part of the state to imprison a man.

Imprisonment is meant for punishing a man for not obeying the laws of the state, or for committing some crime. It aims at correcting the spirit by curbing his body, but that is an absurd idea; the spirit of a man cannot be corrected by punishing the body, by confining it within the walls of a prison. The author thinks that the purpose of imprisoning was foiled in his case because in the prison he felt freer than outside. As a spiritualist, he thinks that imprisonment is meaningless because it only curbs a man’s bodily movement, but his mind becomes freer than before. He can indulge in more thinking and philosophizing, being within the prison. Thoreau’s idea about imprisonment is also revolutionary like his other ideas; it goes counter to the conventional ideas about the subject.